Nashville may be an over-the-top prime-time soap opera, but it’s also one of the most accurate depictions of the record industry in recent pop culture, with characters who are forced to reckon with declining sales and painful marketing compromises. While it’s nice that the drama between Connie Britton’s and Hayden Panettiere’s characters has some grounding in the reality of contemporary country music, the most exciting thing about the show are the performances, like the Sam Palladio and Clare Bowen’s rendition of The Civil Wars’ gorgeous tune “If I Didn’t Know Better.”
43. French Montana featuring Lil Wayne, Drake, and Rick Ross, “Pop That”
French Montana teamed up with three of the biggest stars in rap for the year’s most shamelessly lusty club anthem. The video belongs to a long line of clips in which rappers party by a pool and objectify girls in bikinis, but it may actually be the best of its kind, if just for the sheer volume of twerking on screen in just five minutes.
42. Himanshu, “Womyn”
Himanshu (aka Heems), formerly of Das Racist, is very good at sneaking clever, complicated ideas into essentially dumb music. In this song he makes a lot of silly jokes — mostly at his expense — about how much he likes ladies, and while it basically sounds like any number of goofy hip-hop songs about girls, it slowly sinks in that it’s an earnest tune about genuinely appreciating women and recognizing them as people who have lives, opinions. Which is very “no duh,” but in the context of rap, it’s actually a radical thought.
41. Nicki Minaj vs. Mariah Carey
Nicki Minaj typically throws shade at fading stars like Lil’ Kim, but this year she stepped up to the big leagues of diva feuds by picking a fight with her American Idol costar Mariah Carey. The conflict began during an Idol auction in Charlotte but carried on for weeks, with no less than Stevie Nicks entering the fray to blast Nicki for having the nerve to disrespect Mariah. The pop drama was amped up by the age difference between the two women, with Nicki representing a new generation of divas and Mariah standing as one of the most established and successful stars of all time.
40. Björk’s “Biophilia” app
A lot of musicians have been experimenting with creating apps, but they’ve mostly been a waste of time. Björk’s Biophilia, on the other hand, is a game-changer that is not only engaging and inventive, but a central component of her larger Biophilia project. It’s not an app for the sake of making an app, it’s an app as a fully formed and fascinating work of art. It didn’t blow up in the marketplace and hasn’t reinvented the album as Björk had hoped, but it’s an important step forward.
39. Fun., “Some Nights”
Fun. may seem like a bunch of squares, but they’re the most inventive rock band on the radio by far, mixing the essence of ’70s rock with the electronic textures of modern pop, the campy bombast of musical theater, drum line percussion, and whatever else comes to mind. “Some Nights,” their signature anthem, is a wonderfully overstuffed power ballad that’s as odd as it is sentimental.
38. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis featuring Mary Lambert, “Same Love”
“If I was gay, I’d think hip-hop hates me / Have you seen the YouTube comments lately?” Macklemore raps in “Same Love,” an incredibly earnest song admonishing hip-hop culture for widespread casual homophobia. This song could easily be smug or sanctimonious, but instead, it’s warm, open-hearted, and conversational, which is exactly the right way to go if you actually want to change someone’s mind.
37. Anne Hathaway sings in “Les Miserables”
The trailer for Tom Hooper’s new film adaptation of Les Miserables is nothing but Anne Hathaway singing a powerful rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream,” the melodramatic ballad that launched the career of Susan Boyle. It’s absolutely brilliant in that Hathaway’s technically sharp but subtly emotive performance sells the movie even to people who’d normally avoid musical theater, but it’s also horribly misleading in that she actually has a minor role and will barely be in the film at all. But when you have something this stunning, why not flaunt it?
36. “We Invented Swag: NYC’s Queer Rap”
Pitchfork writer Carrie Battan’s article about NYC’s LGBT rap underground is the year’s most impressive piece of music journalism. Battan profiles rising stars like Mykki Blanco, Zebra Katz, and Le1f while thoughtfully placing their music in the context of the rich history of queer subcultures and a hip-hop culture that is very slowly learning to accept non-straight sexuality after decades of outright hostility toward gay men.
35. Big Bang, “Fantastic Baby”
Big Bang, a South Korean boy band led by the flamboyant and wildly charismatic rapper G-Dragon, are one of the most compelling acts in K-Pop. “Fantastic Baby,” their first hit to cross over in North America, is a bewildering house-music juggernaut. The music video, which looks like a bunch of teen dandies posing in an ornate video game, takes it all to the next level.
34. Animal Collective, “Centipede Hz”
Centipede Hz is like one of those Magic Eye posters — at first, it’s hard to find its form in its treble-heavy clutter, but once you acclimate to its tonal range, you “see the boat,” and from that point onward it just sounds like a bunch of pop songs. Or, at least, Animal Collective–style pop songs. The sound of it all makes perfect sense too: They’re emulating the compressed, interference-heavy sound of radio and drawing on childhood memories of discovering music for the first time, when it all sounds a bit mysterious and alien.
33. “The Hottest Chick in the Game”
Writer Sean T. Collins and artist Andrew White’s brilliant Web comic “The Hottest Chick in the Game” tells the story of a future version of Drake who attempts to defy the natural order of the universe and comes into conflict with an Illuminati cabal led by Jay-Z, Beyoncé, Kanye West, and Blue Ivy Carter. It’s basically like an episode of The Twilight Zone set in the world of contemporary hip-hop, and it digs deep into Drake’s public persona — never satisfied, and always searching for something he can never have. As strange as this story gets, it’s amazing how this fictional world seems only slightly removed from what you hear in the music made by any of the stars who show up in this comic.
32. Perfume Genius, “Hood”
“Hood” is an expression of a deep, consuming fear that one’s partner will leave them if they ever truly knew them. It’s a bit painful to hear because Mike Hadreas’ lyrics and performance are so raw and direct, but it’s also quite beautiful, because you hear him resisting this anxiety in every note.
31. Bruno Mars, “Locked Out of Heaven”
Bruno Mars has been churning out hits for a few years now, but he really stepped up his game with this smash hit, which updates the distinctive sound of The Police for a generation born well after that band broke up in the mid-’80s. The song, a collaboration with Amy Winehouse producer Mark Ronson, is a major artistic breakthrough for Mars and signals the potential for a full-on New Wave revival in mainstream pop.
30. Ceremony, “Adult”
The guitar chords in “Adult” stab at you like long, sharp knives, but it’s the words that really slice you up. Ross Farrar attacks the listener with the cold reality of maturity, bluntly reminding us that “we have to give up on things we love,” repeating the phrase a few times over before amending it with a “sometimes” that makes the message only slightly easier to stomach. A lot of punk-rock culture is built on trying to reject this notion, so it comes out sounding like a challenge to the band’s roots in California hardcore but also a strong-willed fight against compromise.
29. One Week // One Band
One Week // One Band shakes up the usual music-blog format by giving space for one writer to dig into their fandom of a particular artist over the course of a week. The site hit its stride this year, with a tag team of seasoned critics and talented novices expounding on everything from ABBA and Stevie Nicks to Liars and The Beta Band. The site is at its best when it finds new angles on familiar subjects, like when Web designer Joey Pfeifer thoughtfully explained how Weezer turned him into a huge music fan after spending all of his teen years largely indifferent to it, or when Daniella Joseph spent seven days offering fresh perspectives on Radiohead, the most critically fawned-over band of the past decade.
28. Miguel, “Kaleidoscope Dream”
R&B star Miguel’s breakthrough album is sleek and sexy, but also surprisingly goofy and self-effacing, revealing him to be an exceptionally sincere and open-hearted dude in a genre full of slick lover boys. His lyrics are rarely subtle, but his music is — shifting from low-key minimalism to colorful hooks throughout Kaleidoscope Dream with effortless grace.
27. “The Nekci Menij Show”
David Monger’s wonderfully bizarre YouTube series The Nekci Menij Show is both a passionate tribute to and scathing satire of the modern pop diva. The series, which is based largely on the style of the cult hit The Uncle Dolan Show, parodies nearly every major female pop star today, but does so with the reverence of someone who is obviously deeply in love with the drama of the pop charts.
26. Sleigh Bells, “Demons”
Derek E. Miller’s guitar riff in “Demons” is so perfect and elemental that it’s hard to imagine how it wasn’t already in a hit by AC/DC, Def Leppard, Led Zeppelin, or Black Sabbath. Whereas a lot of modern metal rejects pop hooks in favor of needless complexity, Sleigh Bells embrace the riff’s blunt simplicity, hammering it all home with thudding beats and a chorus that sounds like a cheerleader squad chanting for Satan.
25. Killer Mike, “R.A.P. Music”
Killer Mike has been turning out smart, technically impressive rap records for years, but he came into his own this year with R.A.P. Music, a consistent and ruthlessly concise album produced entirely by El-P. It’s a heavy record, full of harsh noise, blunt beats, and lyrics that harshly criticize economic and political corruption. It’s a bold set of songs by a major talent and a reminder that sometimes it takes an artist some time to hone their craft before delivering their defining work.
24. “Low Times” Podcast
“Low Times” is essentially an old-school zine in the form of a podcast, and its trio of hosts — Daniel Ralston, Maggie Serota, and Best Show on WFMU host Tom Scharpling — regularly engage in career-spanning long-form interviews with icons of indie rock, punk, and beyond. Every episode is a gem, but look for Ralston’s chat with reclusive Fugazi singer Guy Picciotto and Scharpling’s entertaining and insightful conversations with G.E. Smith, Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, and “Weird Al” Yankovic.
23. Godspeed You! Black Emperor, “Allelujah! Don’t Bend! Ascend!”
Godspeed You! Black Emperor’s first album in a decade is the most abrasive and aggressive record of the Canadian collective’s career, but also its most powerful and immediately accessible. The album, split between two 20-minute suites and two shorter drone pieces, is bleak and highly cinematic in its blend of orchestration, art rock, and metal. Allelujah! often feels like confronting darkness and evil on a grand scale, and its most cathartic moments are like summoning the courage to stand up to that horror.
22. Kitty Pryde, “Okay Cupid”
Kitty Pryde’s rap on “Okay Cupid” is shockingly intimate, to the point that it feels like you’re invading her privacy by listening in. “Lordy, shorty you’re a 10 / And I wait for your drunk dials at 3:30 a.m. / I love them,” she confesses on the hook, sounding like she’s spilling her guts to a crush who should be inches away, but is in fact nowhere to be found.
21. Titus Andronicus, “In A Big City”
“In A Big City” is about growing up in the shadow of New York City, and how living so close to this major cultural center shapes the way you think of yourself and where you’re actually from. Like most songs about being from New Jersey, it’s an anthem for underdogs, and while most of the lyrics are ambivalent or self-deprecating, Patrick Stickles sings it all with the intensity of a guy eager to overcome great odds.
20. Britney Spears on “X Factor”
When Britney Spears signed on to be a judge on X Factor, expectations were pretty low. The Britney we’ve seen in the media over the past few years has been such a train wreck that all she really had to do to be considered a success would be to show up and not speak in tongues. As it turns out, Britney is actually fully coherent and totally charming. Her star power totally eclipses everyone else on the show, and her costars seem to be totally in awe of her, to the point of never, ever disagreeing with her judgments. The best thing about Spears’ presence on the show is her incredibly expressive face. She seems totally incapable of hiding her emotions, so whether she loves something or hates it, you get the unvarnished truth of her opinion. Singing competitions are typically driven by overly polite judges, but Britney brings radical honesty to the genre.
The most tear-jerking country ballad of 2012 was, against all odds, written by a pair of Swedish sisters who are barely into their twenties. “Emmylou” is a song about yearning for a deep romantic connection, and Klara Söderberg describes it all in the context of the great romances of country music: “I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June / If you’ll be my Gram and my Johnny too.”
18. Skrillex, “Bangarang”
Skrillex was a living meme in 2012 thanks to his odd name, strange appearance, and status as the figurehead of EDM and dubstep. “Bangarang,” his first single of the year, proved that he’s more than a punch line or record-industry buzzword by showcasing his talent for merging abrasive electronic textures with deft musicality.
17. Jessica Paré sings “Zou Bisou Bisou” on “Mad Men”
Jessica Paré’s performance of the French pop tune “Zou Bisou Bisou” on the season premiere of Mad Men was a revelation, and not just in terms of showcasing Paré’s vocal gifts. In only two minutes, the arc of Don Draper’s relationship with his new wife Megan over the course of the season is foreshadowed — in his uncomfortable response to her public display of talent and sexuality. Before this episode aired, the audience knew very little about the dynamic of Don and Megan’s marriage, but after this scene and its immediate fallout, it was all out in the open.
16. Grimes, “Visions”
Grimes’ breakthrough album is a dizzying swirl of electronic beats, sugary melodies, and vocal parts that fracture and collide like contradicting thoughts inside your head. The record sounds sweet at first, but once you notice the lyrics, it’s a rather dark set of songs about being young in a world that seems to be on the verge of the apocalypse.
15. Taylor Swift, “Red”
Taylor Swift dropped all pretense of being a country star and embraced her status as a big-tent pop titan on Red, an album so stuffed with potential hits that it already sounded like a greatest-hits set on the day it was released. Swift successfully integrates elements of U2-style arena rock, twee indie, teen pop, and even a touch of dubstep, but her best trick is still her uncanny knack for writing about the details of her life as an extremely famous celebrity in way that’s incredibly relatable.
14. Pussy Riot
Pussy Riot, the feminist punk collective who were persecuted and imprisoned by the Russian government for an anti-Putin performance at a church in Moscow, are the most important and famous band you almost certainly never actually heard in 2012. Their music is sorta beside the point, though. Pussy Riot knowingly turned themselves into symbols, and at least part of what they represent is a reminder that the righteous, antagonistic spirit of punk can still be provocative and politically relevant after years of commercialization.
13. Ellie Goulding, “Anything Could Happen”
The big keyboard hook in “Anything Could Happen” is so bright and bouncy that it seems to make the whole world sparkle. The song is arranged like a fireworks display, with the big moments bracketed by verses and breakdowns that only seem smaller in scope and intensity because of their proximity to Goulding’s ecstatic and overwhelmingly optimistic chorus.
12. “Shallow Rewards”
Chris Ott’s Web series Shallow Rewards on Vimeo was the year’s most vital source for music criticism, with the veteran writer holding forth on topics ranging from the tricky politics of bands who align themselves with lifestyle branding to the greatness of record-industry veteran Richard Gottehrer in stylishly edited videos. Ott’s an opinionated guy, and it’s entertaining to watch him talk about contentious issues, but he’s at his best when he’s enthusiastically explaining the social context and artistic brilliance of critically maligned acts like Boy George, The Police, and Duran Duran.
11. Jack White, “Blunderbuss”
“Weep Themselves to Sleep”
Jack White has always made a point of restricting his musical palette, particularly during his run as the frontman of The White Stripes. Blunderbuss, his first album as a solo artist, opens up his sound dramatically, rendering his tunes with a full band including strings, pedal steel, backup singers, organs, piano, and bass. The lush sound suits him very well, particularly on the Paul McCartney–like epic “Take Me With You When You Go” and the towering rocker “Weep Themselves to Sleep.” As always, White is difficult to pin down, as Blunderbuss is at once grandiose and cozy, and the mood swings from playfully sexy to spiteful and vindictive. He’s clearly working through a lot of bad feelings here — he’s reckoning with both the dissolution of The White Stripes and the end of his marriage to Karen Elson — but the result is the most consistent and fully realized record of his career to date.
10. Ke$ha, “Die Young”
“Die Young” is thrilling in the way Ke$ha manages to balance out the song’s “carpe diem!” spirit and bawdy sexuality with a genuine sense of existential dread. It’s the most gleefully morbid party jam since Prince’s “1999,” but while that song was inspired by the threat of actual nuclear war, the impending doom of “Die Young” is more of a rhetorical device. Even still, each time she sings the phrase “we’re gonna die young,” the possibility seems more real, and the need to get wild before it’s too late feels more urgent.
9. Bat for Lashes, “The Haunted Man”
Natasha Khan’s music presents a world of endless romance, where even songs about platonic friendships take on a mythic grandeur. The Haunted Man, Khan’s third album as Bat for Lashes, mainly explores the tension and complexity of relationships between distant, sullen, traumatized men and nurturing, frustrated women. In some songs, like “Oh Yeah” and “Lilies,” she sings from the perspective of women who yearn for a passion they’ve never known firsthand, but on others, she sings about a compassion so strong that her characters willfully abandon their own needs.
8. Lana Del Rey
No pop star has been discussed more, or in greater depth, than Lana Del Rey in 2012, but nearly a full year after the release of her debut album Born to Die, we’re no closer to having any idea of who she is, what she’s supposed to be, or what she’s really trying to say with her provocative music and videos. Depending on whom you ask, she’s a meme, a troll, a feminist, an anti-feminist, a genius, a fraud. No matter who she is, she’s become a powerful symbol, and her status as a living riddle has yielded some of the most passionate, thoughtful, and sometimes hilarious discourse about music and identity politics in 2012.
7. “Not Fade Away”
Not Fade Away, the first film by Sopranos creator David Chase, may be the best movie ever made about a rock band. It’s the story of a bunch of kids from New Jersey in the mid-’60s who chase their dream of being the next Beatles or Stones, but end up imploding before they achieve much of anything. Chase doesn’t sugarcoat any aspect of the ’60s, and much of the film is a meditation on the way the fashion and values of these kids clash with those of their working-class families. Every moment and emotion in Not Fade Away is messy and complicated, but often earnest and beautiful in its romanticism.
6. Frank Ocean, “Channel Orange”
Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange is like the R&B album equivalent of Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit from the Goon Squad — a collection of songs sung from a wide variety of perspectives that somehow add up to single fractured story encompassing the lives of nihilistic rich kids in Los Angeles, a visit to ancient Egypt, and the interior monologue of a depressed drug dealer. It’s hard to tell where Frank Ocean is in all of this, but his tale of excruciating unrequited love on the ballad “Bad Religion” is so vivid that it’s impossible to imagine it coming from anything other than lived experience.
5. Psy, “Gangnam Style”
“Gangnam Style” blew up in a totally organic way, coming up from total obscurity to beat out Justin Bieber for the most popular video in the history of YouTube in just a few months. The song was never intended to reach a Western audience; its success is entirely the result of genuine enthusiasm and curiosity. This is a beautiful thing, especially when you consider that much of the “Gangnam” phenomenon was the result of it turning into a meme and inspiring the creativity of fans and haters alike. It could end up being the “Smells Like Teen Spirit” of K-Pop; a monster hit that proves that there’s a market for Asian music in the American mainstream. Even if it turns out to be more like the Korean “Macarena,” the song will go down in history as a triumph of viral pop and silly dancing.
4. Japandroids, “Celebration Rock”
Great rock bands are hard to come by these days, but the Canadian duo Japandroids pound out catchy, highly energetic punk anthems with the power and intensity of a quintet, and perform with the sincerity of guys who do not for a moment question the vitality of rock as an idea or path to transcendence. The band’s force and momentum is owed to powerhouse drummer David Prowse, but the draw is in massively charismatic frontman Brian King. Celebration Rock is just what the title implies — a record that’s nothing but joy, adrenaline, passion, and excitement from beginning to end.
3. Carly Rae Jepsen, “Call Me Maybe”
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what it is that makes “Call Me Maybe” so fun, charming, and extraordinarily viral, but it’s got something to do with the rhythm of the words “I just met you / And this is crazy.” As the basis for a meme, it’s all about flexibility, as those words are basically a joke set up on par with “knock knock, who’s there?” But as a piece of pop music, the appeal is in Carly Rae Jepsen’s total earnestness. “Call Me Maybe” is a song about a crush that actually feels like love at first sight in real time, and it’s so effective in capturing that thrill that it gets addictive.
2. Kendrick Lamar, “good kid, m.A.A.d city”
Kendrick Lamar’s first proper album is a semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale set in Compton, a city that for many exists primarily as the backdrop of classic rap records. He draws on the mythic resonance of his hometown while telling stories about its corrupting influence, bending his voice to inhabit multiple characters, or in the case of the chest-beating “Backseat Freestyle,” to regress himself to the mind-set of an insecure teenage boy connecting with the bravado of rap for the first time. The genius of good kid, m.A.A.d city is in how Lamar builds a world out of scraps of hip-hop history while using those familiar elements to hint at dramatic subtext and literary irony. It’s a technical masterwork, but its formal brilliance is always secondary to its raw emotional intensity.
1. Fiona Apple, “The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do”
Fiona Apple’s previous albums were emotionally powerful, but highly refined and elegant. The Idler Wheel, her fourth and best record, abandons all that in favor of raw physicality and undiluted expression. She’s slashed her arrangements down to rhythmic essentials and the bare minimum of adornment, and in the album’s most harrowing moments, pushed her voice to its limits with unhinged yet totally soulful howls and shouts. Everything about the music is physical. The accompaniment draws your attention to the fact that the sounds come from objects being struck and touched; she sings in a way that keeps you aware of her body’s movements and strains; the lyrics obsess on physical fragility, tactile sensations, and visceral imagery. The Idler Wheel is a next-level masterpiece by an artist who was already heads and shoulders above pretty much all of her peers as a singer, songwriter, and performer. It’s the year’s most devastating and beautiful record, but it’s also a work of art that shows us that truly great talents never stop evolving.